By Erika Lovely
Much of Democratic opposition researcher Jason Stanford’s work is done in a hermetically sealed world — locked in strange hotel rooms, legislative libraries and obscure courthouses, poring over documents and clues that can wound opponents.
The information yield can include how much a rival candidate paid for a European vacation or the topic of a third-grade essay — seemingly innocuous information that has cost some politicians elections.
“What we do is hold politicians to publicly documented facts,” Stanford said. “This job is tailor-made for a high-achieving debate nerd.”
Although he won’t name names, his 2008 client lineup includes House candidates from Texas, New Mexico and South Carolina, he said.
Stanford’s opposition research firm has helped mastermind numerous congressional Democrats’ victories.
And it’s not only Republicans who are the targets.
Consider then-client Lincoln Davis from Tennessee, now in Congress.
In the 2002 Democratic primary for the open 4th District, in the south-central part of the state, Stanford knocked out Davis’ rival Fran Marcum after uncovering evidence of business fraud allegedly committed by the multimillionaire entrepreneur.
Documents showed Micro Craft, a NASA subcontractor owned by Marcum’s family, was nailed by government auditors for filing false invoices totaling more than $7 million.
The company eventually paid more than $200,000 in fines, and Marcum was forced to drop out of the race shortly before the primary.
“In this field, there is rarely a silver bullet. But in this case, she could’ve been a vampire,” said Stanford.
Another of Stanford’s proudest political scalps is that of W. Bruce Lunsford, who spent $8 million seeking Kentucky’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2003.
Working for the rival gubernatorial primary campaign of Attorney General Ben Chandler, Stanford dug through bankruptcy court files to uncover lawsuits alleging abuse of elderly patients in failing nursing homes run by Lunsford.
The damaging information found its way into a Chandler television commercial.
“We featured a woman whose mother had died in a nursing home,” Stanford said.
“It was the work of an aggressive smarty pants.”
Lunsford dropped out of the race the weekend before the primary.
And while such tactics work effectively in political campaigns, they’re not a great way to make friends.
Stanford’s career choice is considered a social faux pas in some circles, and even his own mother is hesitant to talk about it.
Despite the judgmental treatment he often receives, Stanford says his research is still a satisfying replacement for his original dream job: espionage.
Stanford studied Russian at Lewis & Clark College and spent time in Moscow, determined to become a Russian spy for the United States.
But his dream of becoming an international man of mystery was quickly dashed when the Cold War ended in 1991 and spy jobs dried up.
Stanford returned home and, in 1994, took a research position in Texas with Gov. Ann Richards’ reelection campaign.
Although the governor was unexpectedly defeated by newcomer George W. Bush, the campaign proved a valuable training ground for research methods, as Stanford became obsessed with the private business of politicians.
Stanford opened his own firm in 1997, and it grew rapidly.
The initial startup fee for a research consultant from Stanford Research ranges from $15,000 to $20,000, with additional charges for long-term consulting work, he said.
Stanford’s salary lies in the low six figures, he said.
Stanford says the opposition research field is dealing with a host of challenges that are changing the way business is conducted.
The growth of the blogosphere has become the Wild West of political mudslinging, providing a constant flow of tantalizing candidate rumors that are almost impossible to quantify with the conventional proof of a paper trail.
“The Internet has opened research to a host of less than credible sources,” Stanford said.
“I only deal with primary documents. You can’t trust answers over the Internet or phone.”
The online researching trend has poured over to college graduates, many of whom are unfamiliar with research that doesn’t involve a Google search.
“People no longer understand the physical toll standing at the county clerk’s office takes on your body,” Stanford said.
“I’m lucky to have learned opposition research when the fax modem was slower than actually showing up at the courthouse.”
The article first appeared in Politico.